My “frenemy,” as he likes to say for some reason, was scheduled to be married across the Hudson from West Point one June afternoon. Even though he uses that moniker, I was to be a groomsman. On my way to New York from Texas, it occurred to me that, because my job lets me work from anywhere, I’d work from anywhere. I packed one decent sized roller case and a laptop bag and decided, once I left the wedding, I’d just figure it out. Mid-life crisis or a lifetime of wanderlust, you can decide and I hope you judge me fairly. You really do only live once, unless you’re Hindu – and I wanted to see the world.
After taking several surveys at the reception and small parties surrounding the event, Montreal became a clear starting point for this adventure. I’d never been, they speak a different language, it looked beautiful on the internet and it was just a romantic-sounding train ride up the Hudson.
If you’re a Millennial who’s into “experiences” more than “things,” first of all, my apologies for the amount of crap you guys have to put up with from people who haven’t led by example. Second, you may like this part: My challenge, I decided in my friend Barry’s apartment in NYC, was to get as far as I could on as little as possible before my passport expired 128 days later. Third and finally, put your f-cking phone down.
The Amtrak site will tell you the $70 ride takes 8 hours and they’re full of crap. They know for a fact Canadian Border Patrol stops and enters the train and interviews everyone on board yet they keep the 8-hour schedule – even though it’s always at least 10 1/2. Nevertheless, it’s a gorgeous ride up the Hudson Valley past West Point to Poughkeepsie on up near the Catskills. We passed Albany and Saratoga Springs and saw Vermont’s lush mountains to the East. I was pleased to hear a call for a stop in “Ticonderoga,” a phrase I’d only heard in old films and read on pencils.[n]
The train is my favorite form of transportation. You’re not dealing with other drivers, you’re not surrounded by anxiety-filled people afraid of flying, you just get on and read something and it arrives somewhere safely, more often than not. (Not in India of course.)
On this train, we were blessed with no fewer than six brand new babies. When you enter Canada from the States with an infant, they take you off the train and contact everyone you’ve ever met in your entire life. They ask to speak with the hospital janitor who worked the shift coinciding with the delivery, what constellations were visible that night and the name of at least three songs heard over the speakers on the baby’s first ride in the family car. I’m telling you, that 8-hour travel time on Amtrak’s website is a miserable suitcase of lies.
[n]: A “pencil” is a writing utensil, whereby a – usually yellow – wooden housing encased graphite that left marks on paper. These also contained an eraser – usually pink – made of Christ-knows-what and either erased what you’d written in graphite or smudged it, making your entire endeavor unintelligible.[n]
[n]: Writing was something people did near the turn of the century, before “smartphones” came along, back when people were forced to learn the rules of spelling and grammar.
Crossing into Canada after two and a half hours at the border, you get the “this is a totally different country” vibe. And I mean right on the borderline. The farms are different, the trees are weird, the people look like model train people, standing on the platform waving, with no facial features. I thought to myself, ‘Stone and Parker nailed it with that “Terrance & Phillip” thing.’ And it’s clean. The landscape from the border of New York along the tracks to just south of Montreal is reminiscent of Grant Wood’s depressing-colors French stuff.[n]
Montreal, or “Fake Paris,” is an island with a 750-foot “mountain” in the middle. The city is very walkable but you’ll want to take advantage of the subways and buses. Go listen to blues music at JoJo, walk around Old Town, hike up the mountain, ride the thing at the Olympic plaza, harbor this, cathedral that…
Pardon me, I nodded off. Look, you can go to any city in the world and see the same things that everyone else travels the world to see. Some of it’s worth it, some of it’s not. But getting to know the locals has always been my favorite part of any trip, with a few understandable exceptions. So when I enter a new town, I put my bags in the room and try to find a place where locals gather. Sometimes that’s a newsstand, other times it’s a café or public square. Most often for me, it’s an out-of-the-way pub, not crowded but populated. You might call it a “dive bar,” but you and I probably have very different notions of what that is.
To me, a true dive bar is any VFW that still allows smoking. A biker bar that bikers go to where there’s a genuine possibility you’ll see a knife fight. A bar with an excellent jukebox, a surly bartender and a one-legged woman drinking beer from a can, balancing herself atop a barstool for hours at a time between occasional trips to a poker machine. A bar where the air smells like they unearthed a corpse in the corner the night before, covered it up with Lysol then made some popcorn.
A dive bar has a giant jar of pickled eggs somewhere, not as a gimmick or tip of the hat to gentler times, no, because people drink there in the morning and need to put something on their stomach. A dive bar is filled with professionals who respect the rules and traditions of the game. Spills aren’t taken lightly. Never discuss the Unholy Trinity (Sex, Politics, Religion) with or around strangers. A dive bar doesn’t have Jenga, foosball, cornhole or ping pong. The only exception to my knowledge, you may have a place of your own as well, is Happy Village in Chicago. Their tables are in a separate room, may as well be a separate bar.
A dive bar is something dangerous you dive into. Literally, that’s where the name comes from. They were normally downstairs so you could dive into them unnoticed. Perhaps you wouldn’t resurface. The frills are modest, the ambiance more so. They display genuine relics that mean something to both staff and patrons, items that commemorate a defining moment in the establishment’s history. No lounge music, no UNTUCKit™ shirts or Rolex Yacht-Masters. A dive bar is more about what’s missing, much like good jazz is about the notes not played.
After booking a room at a place called Grey Nuns on Guy Street, I found myself across the road at Andrew’s Pub, a true downstairs dive bar. Ray is the beautiful Israeli bartender; she’ll pour with a heavy hand and make you smile. A couple pool tables near an outstanding jukebox, a row of poker machines line the path to the restrooms. Patrons of all shapes and sizes rack ‘em, belly up or just huddle around stand-up tables to discuss Montreal life as they know it to be.
[n]: Iowa’s Grant Wood studied art of all types in Europe and is known worldwide for “American Gothic,” depicting an old farmer holding a pitchfork (Wood’s Dentist) and a bitter-looking farmer’s wife (Wood’s Sister). These aren’t always funny.
A Wander Around
It didn’t take long to get in good with the regulars at the corner of the bar nearest the door, even though I’d unwittingly taken one of their seats before he arrived. There was Johnny One-Arm, AKA “Gills,” Lorne, AKA “Forlorn,” Shut-the-F-ck-Up-Dave, Joel, and a prostitute who appeared to be on the clock and would take small breaks with several friends that stopped by to say “hello.”
It’s important to note that every Canadian bar has one nautical-looking patron, usually by himself in a corner, with long, white hair, a hooked nose and huge hands. He’ll be wearing a flannel or one of those bulky sweaters women make their non-sailor husbands wear and staring into nothing with a reminiscing smile. On this particular occasion – at Andrew’s, ours was named “Tony,” Forlorn told me. He pointed at him with his chin and his beer and said, “Tony’ll wince when he sits down. He’ll say it’s because his back hurts but the fact of the matter is, he’s sat on one of his enormous balls.” All the men chuckled at the one millionth telling of this one.
When I asked where I could go the next day to catch the World Cup matches on TV and explore a bit more of the city, the crew directed me to the Saint-Laurent Boulevard area. The following morning(ish), after waiting in line at Schwartz’s for five minutes, they’re famous for their smoked meat sandwich, I decided anything is better than standing in line. Instead, I grabbed a shawarma at Shish Taouk down the street and got on with my life. I’ve eaten food before and, as much of a romantic as I am, never saw the point in spending an hour in line for a meal. We should all celebrate the fact we don’t live in 1992 Russia.[n]
Café Frappé was the perfect place to watch the soccer/football; the rooftop was packed with Argentines but there were only six of us downstairs, including Edgar, the multilingual Director of Beverages. We half watched the match and talked about Brazil, his country of origin. But mostly, he told me a lot about the city in which we stood. It was hard on outsiders, the Montréalais can be a bit clique-ish and condescending, much like their cousins across the pond. However, I found most to be friendly enough, even self-deprecating. Though, if you weren’t a French speaker, you could easily be ignored a little longer by waitresses and the like.
The general vibe was, including Edgar, “okay, I’ll talk to you if I have to, there’s no one else here.” I’m only half kidding, by the way. If you happen to be a solo traveler like me, but unlike me, an attractive young person, the situation is a bit different, as is most of your life. Well done you. Write your own book. For guys like me, in disbelief and denial that they’ve reached a certain age and weight, you’re a bit easier to ignore unless you tell people you’re wealthy, which I resulted to on more than one occasion. Immoral? Don’t judge me, if you don’t want to wait 30-minutes for a beer, you might try it yourself. Of course, you’re then beholden to tip more.
Argentina lost to Croatia and the rooftop fell silent. A less-than-jovial conga line dripped down the staircase and into the sad streets. I thanked Edgar and made my way to Chinatown for some Pho. I realize Pho is Vietnamese and that Vietnam isn’t in China but most cities have a Chinatown and most Vietnamese restaurants are near it. So, just like the countries, they’re always close to one another.
[n]: Due to a number of factors, one being that Yeltsin was one of those “I’m in it for the Oligarchs”-type of Premiers, people couldn’t afford meats, eggs or cheese – so they’d stand in line for bread, which they used to substitute for the aforementioned items.[n]
[n]: If you’re from the Northeast, you may stand “on” line. Which would make sense in one of those hospitals that use the colored lines on the floor. But you wouldn’t stand on it. So the phrase sounds goofy to the rest of us but it’s a way you can appreciate one another abroad even though you don’t appreciate one another at home. But hey, not everything has to make sense, like standing in/on line for an hour to eat a f-cking sandwich.
The following morning, I headed straight toward Mont Royal up Guy Street hunting down breakfast. McDonald’s is interesting in Canada but it’s still McDonald’s. If I wanted to eat thrice processed food items, I’d… well, I’d eat at McDonald’s. Taking a left on Le Waytoolongname Street, I happened upon something called Allo! Môn Coco, a name so ridiculous it made me poke my head in. Smelled good, looked good, I held up an index finger to the hostess and said, “Uhn.” She smiled, grabbed one menu and probably told me to follow her. I sat and said, “merci” and she probably told me my waitress would be right with me.
The menu was a Tom Clancy novel. Nine-hundred-eighty pages filled with approximately 7,000 items in French. I took out the phone and got busy translating. The waitress was indeed right with me and she smiled and asked me something at 400mph in Canadian French. My response took too long, the tone was all wrong and the look on my face said it all. Not to mention the American t-shirt I was wearing, my posture, pretty much everything, but she started it. Her facial expression changed and she forced a smile and let me know she’d be right back with an English menu.
This wasn’t the first time my high school-level thespian skills serving up a semi-authentic accent would end up pissing someone off, sure as hell wouldn’t be the last. Now that we were both speaking English, I got a cup of coffee, water and why not try Canadian orange juice? That’d keep her busy while I dog-eared some menu pages and began my hunger Venn diagram. I ordered, time passed, I took the opportunity to study everything around to learn some French, something I didn’t quite master on one 10-hour train ride. Which, I guess is a good thing, according to a mediocre-to-decent John Travolta movie it means I don’t have a brain tumor.[n]
The Lac Saint-Jean platter was idiotic. I’m not sure any human being aside from my brother Josh could eat a massive stack of blueberry pancakes, sausage, bacon, beans, a ton of eggs, some fruit, hash browns and something called “creton,” a cold mixture of pressed pork and onion you eat with toast, unbelievably also provided. The waitress checked on me in increasingly warm fashion, no longer holding the ‘ugly American’ grudge. She was in disbelief that someone my size couldn’t eat faster or even make a dent in my meal in the time that had passed. I assured her my mass came entirely from adult beverage intake and lack of cardio. In an attempt to remedy one of those variables, I settled up and began the day’s journey, which was steeped in family history. And hilly sidewalks.
On that fine, sunny-yet-crisp afternoon, I set off to find the Van Horne Street area, which stretches the western length of the “mountain,” from Little Italy up north, down near Hampstead to the south. They’d named the street after an old railroad baron the family always thought was my great-great-great Grandfather but after a lot more research, he’s either my great-great-great-Uncle or just some guy. Maybe I was about to find out.
[n]: In Phenomenon, John Travolta gets a brain tumor which allows him to buy wicker furniture, learn new languages, get Forest Whitaker laid and revolutionize horticulture in just two hours.
The Van Horne Neighborhood & Olympic Park
I lean toward the quirky side of life; I once waited for the doors to open on the “1” train in Manhattan and asked a stunning woman wearing ballet gear if she liked raisins then exited rapidly to avoid the reply. It was in this spirit I was about to walk up and down Van Horne Street with my driver’s license out and have some fun.
An hour later, all I had were photos of all the Van Horne signs on street corners, bus stops and businesses. Turns out most of Van Horne Street is the Hasidic neighborhood in Montreal and they do not like outsiders walking their streets taking photographs and asking questions. Several times, I was asked why I was taking pictures and what I was doing outside the building – sincerely did have to show my driver’s license and explain that I was simply photographing street signs and that they commemorated a guy that was my great-great-great-Something. At one point, I had a little posse after me, must have looked like I was leading a small, angry Rosh Hashanah parade.
Montreal is full of incredible murals, not the advertising fake-authentic nonsense you see these days, actual, artistic, even awe-inspiring beautification projects. One, a 200-foot Leonard Cohen, is brilliant in its detail and fits in with its surroundings surprisingly well. The rest are scattered around, an abundance of which can be found in the Saint-Laurent Boulevard area. Near Mile-End, there’s one with Michael Douglas from Falling Down, Donald Duck, the Staypuft Marshmallow Man, Slash from the GnR album cover and a number of other inexplicable chunks of pop culture all on one wall. If you’re a street art fan, Montreal’s a helluva place to walk.
Speaking of walking. My Godsons are huge soccer fans and like it when I get them a little something when I visit a city with a team. I would be very busy with this in the months to come. My third day in Montreal took me to Olympic Village. Never could resist checking out a town’s old Olympics area. Montreal’s is pretty alright. It was a cold, gray June day and the walk around this park was a trek.
The old stadium itself, also the old Expos baseball park, has a huge protruding tower leaning some 574-feet over the interior of the stadium. Fun fact, Pirates’ great, Willie Stargell cranked a 535-foot homer into the second deck in 1978, the longest in this huge park’s history. The Alouettes played Canadian football there sporadically until the late 90s. Olympic stadium was built with natural grass then replaced with basically green concrete. No roof was present for many years and ice would collect in the spring, making it hard to field groundballs. Now the Montreal Impact use it when capacity exceeds that of their adjacent soccer stadium. My description of this area is about as exciting as the actual experience.
The old Olympic swimming and diving pavilion is open to the public to this day, so that’s pretty cool.
This reminded me, it was time to find a dive bar.
After another night at Robert’s it was early on the day of my departure for Toronto by train. I decided to hit up Allo! Môn Coco again around 6:30am. I was sat near a young man waiting on his order and we struck up a conversation. It was a Sunday morning and Paul was on ecstasy, wildly confident and very chatty. He’d finished up his shift as a bartender at a club I wouldn’t enter on a bet around 2:30am, he told me. He then went to a dance club where he evidently worked up an appetite and broke off from the pack. We stared at the soccer scores on TV as he rattled off a succession of Montreal facts for about 30-minutes straight, none of which were interesting or true. But he was nice enough and I spend most of my life listening to people talk, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary.
He was entertaining enough to put this thought in my head, “Montreal was founded in the 1800s by pirates.”
Montreal’s a lovely city filled with lovely people. I never got the feeling it was just a big place to which small town people make the obligatory move. It’s got its own vibe. It’s very fashion-forward, wildly creative, mature and as everyone says, is like visiting a European city. I discussed this Europe idea with several people on several separate occasions. “What do the French think of Montreal?” a naïve question, surely no one person in Montreal can speak for all of France. And surely not all of France feels the same way. But the respondent always knew what I meant. It seems the French don’t really visit that often and, when they do, they treat the good people of Montreal like a 14-year-old girl treats her 9-year-old tag-along sister.
I always stifled a chuckle at this. Here was this purportedly big, snobby, condescending French-Canadian city being made fun of by the very place they’re honoring with mimicry. But the history goes much deeper than that. Plus, these were only the people I spoke with and none of them worked for the Consulate or Historical Society. Quebec is very important to France and has been for a very long time. But help yourself to a nice Wikipedia session some bored afternoon. You can learn all about how France might be using Montreal to take over all of Canada.
At the time of this entry, real Parisians are moving to Montreal in droves and jacking up home prices, making fun of locals, pretty much what Californians have done to Austin and Nashville and probably your town.
On a scale of 1-20, I’d give visiting Montreal for four days a solid 14.
The food choices are incredible – check out the Atwater Farmer’s Market for some surprisingly good tacos and Texas BBQ at Aylwin.
In 1973, Asshole Mayor Jean Drapeau had the Van Horne Mansion torn down. It seems its namesake, Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, used too many American workers while building the Canadian Pacific Railroad – something three Canadians had attempted to do and failed. So he had the beautiful mansion demolished. On its hallowed ground now stands an American bank. Minus 4-points right there.
Excellent dive bar choices – but in the end, of those I visited, not my kind of dive bar. You might enjoy Bar Biftek St. Laurent for a small bite in a hip little place that’s a bit on the broken-in side. The bathroom is interesting and the back alley is home to a pole sporting a container for used needles. Or for an important sporting event, check out Café Frappe St. Laurent. It’s pretty cheese dick and semi-Caribbean for some reason, but friendly and has a bizarre little poker machine room and lively rooftop patio. I’m including Frappe as a recommendation because surely no journalist, critic or blogger ever will.
FYI – the St. Laurent area is pretty great. Then walk down to St. Denis and Chinatown then the Museum neighborhood. Follow the Leonard Cohen mural to Andrew’s Pub and tell them ‘hey’ for me.
I docked them two more points for being enormous Anglophobes but using money depicting the Queen of England.